The fifth World Energy Forum, hosted by the Atlantic Council as part of the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, occurred virtually late last month. In conjunction, Atlantic Council released a first edition of The Global Energy Agenda with results of recent surveys of ‘global energy leaders.’
When asked which carbon-free energy technologies will see the greatest increase in investment in 2021, most respondents (31%) said hydrogen, followed by battery storage (23%), prompting the think tank to suggest that 2021 might be ‘the year of hydrogen.’
Experts and entrepreneurs, speaking on a panel entitled ‘Accelerating the hydrogen economy,’ also expressed cautious enthusiasm. They shared their views on how to move hydrogen from what is a nascent technology to one that works at scale, looking for the tipping points.
Molecules vs. electrons
Hydrogen is anticipated to be a versatile intermediary in a carbon-free energy system, an energy carrier in the form of ‘green molecules’ derived from electricity produced by nuclear, hydro, renewable and other non-carbon and low-carbon sources. Fossil fuels equipped with carbon capture to make so-called ‘blue hydrogen’ are also anticipated to play an important role.
The Hydrogen Council, a CEO-led coalition of leading energy, transport and industrial companies has committed to 40GW of green hydrogen in Europe by the year 2030. It is a big commitment to ‘green molecules’ that will connect different parts of the energy system.
Marco Alverà, CEO of the energy infrastructure operator Snam S.p.A., made a strong case for green molecules especially for storage and power system balance.
“As net zero comes up on the agenda, you’re forced to look at molecules, and when you look at molecules you look at hydrogen, at the same time of course the falling cost of batteries,” he said.
“We will need a lot of green molecules to decarbonize not only the hard to abate sectors but also the huge seasonality we need for heating with zero carbon.”
Michaela Kendall, CEO of the British fuel cell maker Adelan, predicted a good decade for hydrogen in the 2020s, when the sector will see dramatic cost declines not unlike those seen in Solar PV during the past ten years.
“In ten years we’ll have a clear global regulatory framework,” she said. “We’ll probably have new businesses at that point, who will be the star players, they will have grown exponentially because this is such a growth phase.”
Ms. Kendall sees production scaling up in the mass manufacturing of fuel cells for hydrogen vehicles. “You’ll be able to see hydrogen vehicles in every city, cars and busses,” she said.
Masakazu Toyoda, Chairman and CEO of Japan’s Institute of Energy Economics, looked twenty years forward in predicting a critical role for hydrogen in his resource-challenged country. In 20 years, he wants to have a remarkable 30% of primary energy in hydrogen.
“In Japan, Korea, Taiwan…we don’t have wind power, renewable energy is limited, primarily we’re making efforts to reduce the cost of blue hydrogen, but if green hydrogen can be cheaper we will welcome that,” he said.
Toyoda sees hydrogen’s advantage in its versatility, its green molecules going to power generation, transportation, heating and industry, while the green electrons of renewables and nuclear are primarily for power generation.
A note of caution came from Michele Fiorentino, Executive Vice President at energy services company Baker Hughes. He looked long term, noting that the new EU plan would have 500GW of hydrogen capacity in the year 2050, while the highest electricity load ever recorded for all of Europe is about 550GW.
“So we’re talking about creating as much hydrogen-driven power than the entire Europe has ever consumed, that tells you how much infrastructure, how much regulation, how much system development needs to happen,” he said.
“The more hydrogen you put, the more renewable you need, the more energy storage you need, the more smart grid management systems you need, the more integration you need,” he continued. “So the reality is, none of these will happen unless there is an integrated solution to the energy challenge, which will include a number of vectors.”
Fiorentino said that when looking 30 years out the perspective should be more on the overall energy system rather than a specific product or technology. He sees roles for wind, solar, gas, and some nuclear.
“You will have an extremely interconnected world where electrons and molecules will commingle to create an integrated energy system,” he said. And he emphasized that sometimes it will be more efficient to cut out the ‘middle man’ of green molecules and just carry electrons directly to end users.
“We’ve launched a green hydrogen catapult,” said Marco Alverà of Snam. “We are committed to making green hydrogen from renewable energy at below $2/kg in five years, we think that’s a tipping point.”
Snam and Baker Hughes have partnered to develop a hydrogen-powered turbine that will compress and move hydrogen fuel blends through Snam’s transmission network. The new turbine called NovaLT12, which will begin operating in Italy this year, is an important piece of what will be required to adapt existing pipeline networks to 10% hydrogen or higher.
Alverà downplayed the transportability challenge of hydrogen, insisting that much of the pipeline infrastructure now in place in Europe is fit for it. He said the pipeline network of Snam, which is the largest in Europe outside of Russia, is of a quality of steel that can accommodate 100% hydrogen.
The transportability of hydrogen also concerns cost. Alverà ventured that if, in 2040, it costs $.08/kg to produce green hydrogen from solar power in North Africa, to move it to Germany by pipeline will cost in the range of $.02/kg. The low pipeline transport cost shows why hydrogen is a great opportunity.
“That’s why here in Milan we burn gas from Siberia…the pipeline cost is so low,” he said.
All the panelists agreed, however, that reaching such tipping points, where dramatic price reductions occur, will require some form of carbon tax. Another important factor will be a certificate of origin for green hydrogen, which will allow an international market to flourish.
Robert Do, who is CEO of SGH2 Energy, said that the color of hydrogen is not so important as the measure of its carbon intensity. This is the pertinent factor for his company in California.
“We have to show the exact pathway, the green lifecycle for how you process (hydrogen),” he said. “By the time we produce it, the state will then certify that, before the carbon intensity is approved.”
He sees the price tipping point favoring transport, which will be the dominant market sector for green hydrogen for the next ten years, with the industrial and power sectors still further out.
SGH2 Energy, a Solena Group company, has a patented plasma heat technology to produce hydrogen-rich bio syngas from waste materials. The resulting hydrogen is compressed, stored and transported at high pressure in tanker trucks. The company is building a plant in Lancaster, California, to supply hydrogen refueling stations for light- and heavy-duty fuel cell vehicles.
“We are currently building a facility that produces 10,000 kg/day, it’s a distributed system, we will build more,” he said. “Our hydrogen is a negative emission (green hydrogen) meaning we are lower carbon emission than green electrolysis, because it’s capturing biomass waste material that would normally have gone to the landfill… so we capture that methane avoidance, so we have a negative emission.”
“We’ll be able to provide for fuel cell cars and busses in 2024.”
Do said he is in discussions with the city of Los Angeles to provide hydrogen for 1,000 fuel cell busses. He is collaborating with a Japanese industrial group that is building 90 hydrogen fueling stations in California over the next five years. These will require 90,000 tons per day, which is an enormous opportunity for his company.
“We are making hydrogen at around $2/kg today,” he said. “(For) transport we are almost competitive in terms of hydrogen price today.”
The company’s method is not fully proven and not without controversy. However, its presence shows that the ‘hydrogen economy’ is not just an arena for big corporations.
“I think there’s lots of space for SMEs,” said Michaela Kendall. “They’re not as engaged as they could be at the moment.”
“I’d like to see a lot more because that’s where the supply chain is,” she added.
“It’s engaging existing supply chains, taking those assets and deploying them quickly, that’s going to accelerate this process.”